Predictability had a brief mention in the discussion on balance (available here), but it deserves more attention than that. After all, sometimes predictability can provide life or be the death of a story. Too predictable, and people wonder if it’s early enough for a movie ticket refund. Too unpredictable, and people leave disappointed or confused. Just the right balance, and it might become the next classic.
There are only so many story types out there and only so many directions the story can take. Frodo either throws the Ring into the volcano or he keeps it. Batman either beats the Joker or he gets beaten. Romeo either wins Juliet’s heart or he loses her.
While settings, characters, and genres can change a story in a million different ways, there are only so many basic plots. Let’s take Romeo and Juliet, John Smith and Pocahontas (on a Disney-ish, typical story level, not from a real historical perspective), and Avatar for example.
All of them are very different at a first glance. Romeo and Juliet live in Italy, John Smith and Pocahontas are in colonial Virginia, and Avatar takes place in the outer reaches of space.
But looking at them more deeply, they all have basically the same plot: guy and girl from warring factions fall in love and end up in trouble because of it. The difference is Romeo and Juliet kill themselves but reunite their families, John Smith and Pocahontas both live but are separated once more, and Jake Sully stays with Neytiri. On a basic level, there are only two outcomes: the lovers end up together or they don’t. And the warring factions either come together or remain at odds.
Putting it this way is almost discouraging. How can anyone ever come up with something that’s not painfully predictable? By starting with a strong plot with twists that provide some unpredictability.
Think of the Twilight Zone. One of my favorites is Time Enough at Last. Check it out now. It’s worth it. And I’m going to talk about it in the next paragraph.
Time Enough at Last starts off so mundane. It’s just a man who loves to read. Then there’s a twist in the form of an atomic bomb. Then a twist in the form of a library. And then one last surprising twist.
Twists can take a story from mediocrity to excellence. I’ll continue on that point next time…